Monday, December 2, 2013

strange Jesus

Buddy Jesus (
When I started out studying 1 John together with our faith community, I thought that we would learn a lot about love. We did learn that, for sure, because John is absolutely besotted with God's love, but the theme that runs through the letter from beginning to end is really more about addressing the confusion that comes from being presented with different ideas/versions of Jesus.  The writer wants to make sure that the listeners/readers are aligned with the true Messiah, the true Jesus, the One who was from the beginning, and not a strange Jesus that has little resemblance to the one that the disciples knew. If you have any contact with teaching, music, books, or media put out by and for Christians, you will perhaps notice that there are many different emphases out there today as well. (A brief aside: I hesitate to use the word 'Christian' as an adjective because I believe it is meant to refer to a person, not be used as a modifier to distinguish one brand of music or clothing or book from another; that's a rather weak function for the word, in my opinion. And now back to the topic at hand.). This can lead to confusion in followers of Jesus. Here are a few examples.

Jesus is the overcoming Messiah.  This was a popular notion in early Christianity because the Jews were living in a time of repression and subjugation, and they wanted a political figure to lead them into freedom. These days, we also hear "overcoming" teachings and often they are filled with that same desire to be in a position of power instead of the constant underdog. Just today I listened to a teacher repeat the familiar phrase: "Have you read the end of the book? We win!" Really? I thought the so-called "end of the book" focused on a Lamb that was slain, the scarred, sacrificial One worthy of our endless worship. Though there is a lot of turmoil in Revelation, it is never about a power grab. If it were, it would not be consistent with the life of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Overcoming the world is more about goodness always being bigger than evil and forgiveness being stronger than revenge. It is about darkness never being able to snuff out light because darkness has no substance. It is about coming into wholeness.

Jesus is the righteous Judge. Unfortunately, some Christians believe that since we are now favoured friends of God, we have the right to pronounce God's judgment on people. I have heard some preachers speak words of outright condemnation to those who are in certain types of sin. Anyone who has read Matthew 7 should realize this is not what Jesus had in mind, and John writes that if we think we are without sin, we are badly mistaken. Judgment puts us in opposition to people (we are on the good side, they are on the bad), but one brief look at the life of Jesus shows us that over and over again Jesus clearly put himself in solidarity with others. Jesus calls us to align ourselves with the broken, the sinners, the unclean, the thoughtless, not to call down judgment on them.

I don't think I am a particularly judgmental person, but there are certain things that really annoy me. One of them is when people use their cell phones in the movie theatre. It is uncanny how I always seem to be sitting next to someone who likes to use their cell phone to text a friend or play a game or look up some nonsense during the movie. It is extremely rude behaviour, according to the law of Matte. A few weeks ago I read something on not judging people and was trying to go judgment-free for a week. It was going pretty well, I thought, and then Dean and I went to see a movie. A lady sat beside me and I thought: "Great! She is not one of those teenagers who will be on her phone during the movie." But I was wrong. She whipped out her cell phone and started texting before the movie ended and I whispered to Dean, "Why am I always sitting beside people who feel they have to use their phone in a movie theatre? I can't believe it!" And then I felt it. That thing that the Holy Spirit does so well: conviction.  I heard a gentle voice challenge me: "You think you are better than her." After my initial defense, "What? No!" I had to agree. Yes, I did think I was better than all the movie texters out there. I held them in disdain, just like a pious Pharisee looking down on those poor, ignorant slobs who didn't know how sinful they were. I decided to let my judgment go and looked again at the texting woman. This time I saw a beautiful person, impeccably dressed and with golden hair, having a conversation with a good friend via her phone. And I was no longer annoyed. I felt a strange affinity toward her and hoped that all was well in her life.

Jesus is a demanding Messiah. Many of the people I encounter who have been involved in the church culture for some time often believe that God is a strict and demanding master. There are commandments to keep, Sunday meetings to go to, tithes to give, and even if you do all those right, you are sure to be tripped up by attitudes which are not right. It is difficult for people trained in law-keeping to understand that the best way to encounter Jesus is to adopt a vulnerable, open, receiving posture. We cannot manufacture righteousness on our own, though many of us try. I cannot call up a robust love for the unlovely (movie texters) from within myself; I am too bankrupt. The only way to be holy is to receive the Holy One, every day and every moment. And out of that fullness, that abundance which comes from being immersed in love and beauty and goodness, we are able to shower love on others and joyfully serve our community. The equation does not work in reverse; I don't make the first move, it always starts with God. No amount of effort on my part will make me more like Jesus. Only a response to God's generous invitation, only a trusting surrender to his call to "Come, follow me," can put me on that path. Jesus does not demand; he invites, he beckons, he calls, and he waits.

While all these things listed above have some truth to them (Jesus does overcome evil, Jesus does judge righteously, and Jesus does ask for our total surrender), an emphasis on any one quality can push out the fuller, more intricate, and complex picture of Jesus that we get in the gospels. By mistakenly emphasizing only one trait we can end up with a strange Jesus, a lopsided Jesus, one that bears little resemblance to the true Jesus. The writer's final exhortation in 1 John is this: "My little children, keep away from idols" and this includes the strange versions of Jesus that we tend to fashion out of our own lack or desire. One of the primary tests to help us discern whether or not we are following the true Jesus is to take a look at how we treat each other.
"My loved ones, let us devote ourselves to loving one another. Love comes straight from God, and everyone who loves is born of God and truly knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. Because of this, the love of God is a reality among us: God sent His only Son into the world so that we could find true life through Him. This is the embodiment of true love: not that we have loved God first, but that He loved us and sent His unique Son on a special mission to become an atoning sacrifice for our sins. So, my loved ones, if God loved us so sacrificially, surely we should love one another. No one has ever seen God with human eyes; but if we love one another, God truly lives in us. Consequently God’s love has accomplished its mission among us." - 1 John 4: 7-12 (The Voice)

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